by Bill Shrader
In March of 2012, author David Toscana wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, entitled “The Country that Stopped Reading.” It is an insightful indictment against the state of education in Mexico and a plea to read books. Toscana states, “The proportion of the Mexican population that is literate is going up, but in absolute numbers, there are more illiterate people in Mexico now than there were 12 years ago. Even if baseline literacy, the ability to read a street sign or news bulletin, is rising, the practice of reading an actual book is not.” 1
In this month’s edition of the ACLAME bulletin, I would like to recommend Toscana’s article with an encouraging word: our work is at times difficult because we are confronting systemic forces that are larger than an individual or a generation. Nonetheless, the work is doable and worth doing. Moreover, some of the techniques for producing personal or societal change (like reading a book) are timeless. For those with little time, read the article and we can all converse later. For those wanting a little more, I offer the following reflection.
While “The Country that Stopped Reading” is about Mexico, it resonated strongly with my experience in Peru—where 47 percent of the students fail to comprehend what they read.2 Toscana has brought to light an international shift in educational philosophy from product to process; whereby students learn the mechanics of attaining an education, but fail to be educated. Daniel Cotlear of the World Bank stated that Peru “has made great strides in getting children into school in recent years … by lowering the standards, so that what you ended up with was very high levels of coverage, but very poor quality.”3 This deficiency of education is exacerbated by a methodology which emphasizes rote memorization over comprehension or the capacity to solve problems. According to Patricia Salas, President of the National Education Council, “To educate well, we have to work on the way in which people produce thoughts.”4
The way in which people produce thoughts is, indeed, key. True education is more than knowing facts, it is the capacity to utilize that information to discern the truth, to solve problems and improve life for ourselves and others. Obviously, Toscana is of the opinion that reading books is a key component of a more effective education. I am in agreement. In fact, I’ve seen it work. After two decades discipling university students, I would like to offer Bill’s BCC methodology for life transformation; i.e., a good Book (like the Bible), plus Conversation in Community.
When I was 13, I read two books based in radically different world views; i.e., Jonathan Livingston Seagull (a new-age, gnostic parable by Richard Bach) and the Good News for Modern Man New Testament. I read them both over and over, and found that the latter began to discern the former. Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” In this case, it was judging the thoughts and attitudes of Richard Bach. The New Testament was not only forming the things I thought about, it was actually changing the thought processes. Like Jesus questioning the teachings of the Pharisees, the Bible encouraged me to critically question what I was reading in other books. Years later, I began reading C. S. Lewis, who had a profound impact on my world view and the way I approached an argument. The amazing aspect of this is that it was not his essays that affected me so profoundly, but rather his fiction. The power of Lewis’ books was not found only in the arguments, but also in the ways they touched my emotions.
Conversations in Community
Lewis and the Bible had something else going for them—the community. By the time I was reading Lewis, I was a university student in Chi Alpha and had a community of friends who were eager to process life together. In this environment, the discerning voice of the Spirit gained volume in the voices and perceptions of other Christians. Critical analysis (a. k. a. conversation) became a team sport. The process of fleshing out a new idea and discerning if it is true or not is imperative not only for education, but also for faith. Paul Little writes, “One cannot drive himself indefinitely by willpower to believe something of which he is not intellectually convinced.”5 A good book will challenge the way we see the world and ourselves—and such a challenge does not take place without cognitive or emotional resistance. As such, the community’s aid in understanding and resolving the conflict is as important as the source material.
Application in a Latin Context
That which Toscana observed in Mexico, I have also observed in Peru: the importance of books is obvious, but the readers are few. As such, I am on a quest to encourage the BCC (book + conversation in community) experience. In the U.S., I often ask young people, “What was the first book you read that impacted you?” In Peru, this question often falls flat. As Toscana points out, they have read only snippets of books or the newspaper; and, as I came to learn, they have little experience conversing about it. This is particularly challenging in a college level class. As such, even though my class may be titled “Biblical Theology,” it is also about how to read, outline, paraphrase, converse about and critically evaluate source material.6 The encouraging outcome of this process is that once the students begin to converse, the joy of learning becomes its own motivation.
As missionary educators, we strive for nothing less than the transformation of individuals and entire cultures with the power of the gospel—which was handed to us by Moses and the apostles in the form of books. In many ways, our work is similar to that of early missionaries who had to teach people how to read in order for the message to take root. Our task is somewhat easier, in that the majority have learned the basic mechanics of reading. Yet, there are obstacles–systemic forces that hinder the effectiveness and sustainability of our work. The internet, television, texting, and a shift in educational philosophy have produced a culture in which individuals no longer have the time or inclination to think through a difficult process, to understand a new idea or to resolve a problem. Nonetheless, they are able. Though they do not initially look to be eager, there are still many who, with Augustine, are willing to “take up and read.” I am there to encourage them to do so. And, when they do, I want to be there to ask, “So, what do you think?”
1 “The Country that stopped Reading,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/opinion/the-country-that-stopped-reading.html?_r=2& (accessed February 26, 2014).
2 “Peru Needs More Libraries,” Living in Peru, http://www.livinginperu.com/news-6802-education-peru-needs-more-libraries-47-percent-students-do-not-understand-what-they-read (accessed August 26, 2010).
3 “Finding Quality Education in Peru,” The World Bank Latin America & Caribbean, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/LACEXT/0,,contentMDK:20983999~menuPK:258569~pagePK:2865106~piPK:2865128~theSitePK:258554,00.html (accessed August 26, 2010).
4 “Peru Ranked Last in the World in Quality of Education,” Living in Peru, http://www.livinginperu.com/news-5061-education-peru-ranked-last-world-quality-education (accessed November 8, 2007).
5 Little, Paul, Know Why You Believe, (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1987), 16.
6 One impediment to my quest is the lack of good source material, especially fiction. While secular Latin culture appreciates a good novel and sees it as a medium for expressing ideas (especially political ones), the Christian community relies heavily on essays—which do not connect on the same visceral level and fail to engage the reader fully.